Tuesday, August 15, 2017
When we first meet Phillip Davidson (Mills) he’s just been released from prison after serving a long sentence. He was innocent of the crime and he’s bitter and as we’ll soon find out he wants revenge. We then find out what actually happened in a flashback sequence. Davidson had been hoping to marry Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars). Her father, a grizzled and drunken old sea captain (actually the skipper of a broken-down old tub), is mixed up in some very shady activities with some very shady people. There is a confused confrontation and then a fire breaks out on board. A body is found and Davidson finds himself facing a murder charge. All the witnesses lie at the trial but there is one betrayal that is especially painful. Davidson is convicted. He escapes the hangman’s noose but he serves twelve years and that’s not an easy thing to forget or forgive.
Superintendent Lowther has had a tail on Davidson from the moment he left prison. Lowther was the man who arrested Davidson but the police had no reason to think, at the time, that there were any doubts as to Davidson’s guilt. He is however concerned by a report from the prison governor. Lots of convicted criminals vow to get revenge on those they blame for putting them inside but it’s unusual for them to nurse a grudge for twelve years. Lowther believes it’s very possible that Davidson may really be intending to take his revenge. Lowther is a good cop and in this case he hopes to prevent a crime. There is another reason for the Superintendent’s concern. One of the three people Davidson is looking for is the Superintendent’s wife.
We can understand Davidson’s desire for vengeance but at the same time we know that this time he could destroy his life completely and he’s basically a good man and we don’t want that to happen. Especially when, quite by chance, he stumbles onto something that could make his life worth living.
Unfortunately he has set certain events in motion and now, even if he were to change his mind, he may not be able to stop those events from unfolding in a way that could bring ruin to both the guilty and the innocent.
Robert Hamer was a very fine and justly celebrated director who contrived to wreck his own career through his weakness for the bottle. He does a fine job here.
This movie has plenty of noir credentials. There’s a plot that is a web of lies and betrayals, there’s plenty of moody cinematography and there’s a protagonist who is a decent man who has fallen into the noir abyss and given way to impulses that might well lead him to destruction. There’s a delightfully sinister villain. There’s a Femme Fatale and there’s a Good Girl character as well. The question is whether the Good Girl can save him by persuading him to accept her love.
Mills does the noir protagonist extremely well. Davidson is an embittered man driven by a slow cold anger but we do get glimpses of the basic decency underneath. He’s trying to be hard and merciless but he’s going against his own nature. Mills was always wonderful at playing very solid and very noble heroes but he had a surprising talent for much darker and more tortured characterisations, a talent that made him ideal for film noir.
Fay belongs to the Ambiguous Femme Fatale category. She’s not an evil spider woman but rather a woman who has been put in a difficult situation and has chosen the morally wrong course of action. She has certainly managed to ruin Davidson’s life just as completely as any spider woman.
The John Mills Centenary Collection II boxed set comprises seven movies and they’re a varied bunch, which is a reasonable reflection of the breadth of his talent. It includes a couple of noirish gems - Tiger Bay and The Vicious Circle. The Long Memory gets a pretty good transfer.
The Long Memory is a satisfying crime thriller. Purists may not accept it as full-blown noir but it has enough noir credentials to please most viewers and it’s very definitely entertaining. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Marissa (Milly Vitale) is just the latest in a long line of innocent girls ensnared by vice racketeer Tony Giani (John Derek) and his brother Angelo (Martin Benson). Marissa has only been in London a few days when she is offered a job as a hostess in a club. One of the patrons starts to get a bit too sleazy with her and she is rescued just in time by a handsome white knight. He will take her away from such sordid surroundings. He offers her fun and romance. He’s a terribly nice guy and of course Marissa falls for him. There’s only one slight problem. They can’t get married until his divorce comes through.
Yes, it’s the oldest line in the book and Marissa falls for it. In fact her handsome and sensitive white knight is Tony Giani and he’s a pimp. He’s persuaded her to take the bait and now he’s reeling her in.
There’s little the police can do, since it’s impossible to make any charges stick as long as the girls are unwilling to talk. It’s slightly unusual for a 1950s British crime movie to portray the police as completely impotent and not overly interested.
Tony Giani believes in taking his time before putting a girl to work. He spends weeks grooming them, sweet-talking them and making sure the fall in love with him, and then he uses some ingenious emotional manipulation to persuade them that they’re actually doing it for love. The idea is to get them to be entirely willing recruits to prostitution.
In other words it’s a bit like so many of those awful American social problem movies of the same era, presenting a simplistic good vs evil view and emotionally manipulating the viewer into accepting that simplistic view.
John Derek as Tony is the movie’s saving grace. He really is incredibly charming and incredibly sinister and slimy all at the same time. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance and although he’s the chief villain he’s a lot of fun.
The other characters are all clichés. There’s Freda Jackson as Trixie, the whore with a heart of gold. There’s Angelo, a generic gangster figure. There’s Shirley Ann Field as Susan, another of the girls who is almost as unbelievably dumb as Marissa.
This is a message movie and that’s always a red flag. It’s trying so hard to be hard-hitting and sensitive and non-sensationalistic. Actually if they’d made it as an out-and-out exploitation movie it would probably have had more impact.
Although there’s no nudity or actual sex scenes the fact that it’s absolutely up-front about the fact that Giani’s girls are prostitutes gave it considerable shock value at the time and it was a major hit.
The Flesh is Weak has been released on an all-region DVD by Odeon Entertainment in the UK. It’s a pretty good transfer.
I was decidedly underwhelmed by The Flesh is Weak. I can’t really recommend this one.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
The Man in Grey was the first of a series of wildly successful women’s melodramas made by Britain’s Gainsborough studio in the 1940s. These movies were quite unapologetically targeted at a female audience. They were costume pictures so as well as featuring gloriously overheated melodramatic plots, forbidden love and forbidden sex, jealousies, betrayals, sexy bad boys and sexy bad girls you also get some fairly lavish period sets and gorgeous costumes. The Man in Grey makes no attempt to be art. It’s a steamy Regency romance and it was a massive box office hit in Britain.
There’s a framing story set in 1940s England which I personally thought was a bit unnecessary but it does add even more romance and that’s what this movie is all about. The actual story takes place in Regency England. A new pupil arrives at an exclusive girls’ school. The other girls are all from rich families but Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) is a penniless orphan who has only been accepted because the headmistress owed her mother a favour. Hesther is very aware of her poverty. She is proud and resentful. She also has some definite long term plans to escape from poverty.
The most eligible bachelor of the time is the young and handsome Lord Rohan (James Mason). Lord Rohan does not have a very good reputation. He devotes his life to pleasures of a frankly sensual nature and he is gloomy and moody. On the other hand he has a very distinguished title and oodles of money. In other words he’s the type of man to set female hearts a-flutter. Rohan has no interest in marriage but he does need to produce an heir so he will have to marry someone and Clarissa Marr seems as suitable as anyone. Clarissa, who is as naïve as she is sweet, accepts his proposal.
Of course things are going to get very complicated. Rokeby, who is actually the owner of an estate in Jamaica that has been overrun by rebellious slaves, gets a job as librarian to Lord Rohan and soon he and Clarissa have fallen madly in love and are having an affair. Meanwhile Hesther has achieved her first major goal and has become Lord Rohan’s mistress. It sounds like a workable arrangement. Clarissa doesn’t care if her husband sleeps with other women - as long as he doesn’t want to sleep with her she’s happy. And Rohan has no objection at all to Clarissa sleeping with anyone she likes as long as she’s discreet.
As you may have gathered there’s a great deal of implied sex and most of it is very definitely illicit, if not perverse as well. And the film is pretty open about it all. It raised some eyebrows at the time and there are moments that still seem pretty damned steamy even today. Much of this is due to the casting. James Mason is of course perfectly suited to the role of the slightly dissipated, somewhat cruel and generally dangerous nobleman. Margaret Lockwood was one of the screen’s all-time great bad girls. She and Mason would team up again in The Wicked Lady and together they’re sexual dynamite. Phyllis Calvert has a difficult role since she has to make Clarissa convincingly naïve without making her seem stupid and she has to make her sweet and good-natured without being cloying. On the whole she manages it fairly well. Stewart Granger makes a wonderful reckless romantic hero (it turns out he’s really a nobleman as well but the slaves took over his estate in the West Indies).
There’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this film. If it shocked audiences in the 40s it’s quite likely to shock modern audiences although for different reasons.
Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers a fairly good transfer and, unusually for this company, some extras including a documentary on James Mason’s career. This movie has also been released in Region 1 in a boxed set in Criterion’s Eclipse series.
This is a movie that packs as much twisted romance and illicit sexuality into its running time as it can. It’s a women’s picture, a chick flick if you like, so if you’re male you have been warned. It’s an out-and-out melodrama and it’s an unashamed bodice ripper but it’s a stylish and well-made example of both breeds and if that’s what you’re looking for then it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.
Monday, July 24, 2017
The movie opens with a fine action set-piece as Max Brant (Zachary Scott) makes a daring escape from the custody of the French police. Brant had been set to face the guillotine, for murder, so we know immediately that we’re dealing with a pretty ruthless character here. Brant and Duke (Lee Patterson) make their way to England. Brant wants to renew an old acquaintanceship, with Louie Bernard (Mervyn Johns). Louie lives in a large and gracious country house. He is the personification of the respectable country gentleman. Except that his life of luxury and gentility is based entirely on crime. Louie is an engraver of genius and he has put his genius to lucrative, if dishonest, use.
Max is planning the counterfeiting racket to end all counterfeiting rackets. It’s going to be on a very large scale and nothing will be left to chance. The plates will be perfect, the paper will be perfect, the ink will be perfect. These counterfeit notes will be indistinguishable from the real thing.
The plan is carefully thought out. It’s fool-proof. It is a minor concern that Louie wants nothing to do with it and has to be coerced into agreement. There’s also another small problem. Louie’s hands are no longer steady enough to do the engraving. Luckily Louie’s daughter Carole (Peggie Castle) has inherited his artistic skills so she can do the engraving under Louie’s supervision.
Mention of Carole brings us to another very tiny potential problem. Carole is a straight arrow. She also has to be coerced into agreeing to take part in this scheme. A problem that Max doesn’t even know about yet is that Carole has a boyfriend who is likely to turn up at any moment.
Max intends to print so much fake money that his own gang could not possible pass all the notes themselves so his plan is to divide the country up into territories and sell the notes in bulk to other criminal gangs who will then worry about the details of distribution. It’s a very ambitious idea and obviously it means that a very large number of people are going to know about it. This is yet another potential weakness.
In fact that’s one of the things that makes the movie interesting. There are so many flaws in Max’s plan that you know it has to fail and yet it’s fun watching Max sail on so confidently, sublimely unaware of impending disaster. These criminals are both extremely clever and extremely stupid. Max’s stupidity comes from his arrogance. He thinks he’s a criminal mastermind. He almost could be, but not quite.
The elaborate nature of Max’s scheme and the fact that the movie spends a great deal of time on the intricate planning and organisation that goes into that scheme makes this movie a kind of forerunner of the heist movies that would become such a feature of 1960s movie-making.
Zachary Scott captures Max’s crazy delusions of criminal grandeur extremely well. Lee Patterson was always reliable in this sort of movie. Eric Pohlmann is fun as a rival gangster.
The Counterfeit Plan has been released on DVD in Britain by Network and on made-on-demand DVD in the US in the Warner Archive series. The version I have is the Network version which is uncut. The Warner Archive release is apparently a shorter cut version and given that the Network release looks superb and even has a few extras that’s obviously the one to go for.
By the way, whatever you do don’t watch the trailers before you watch the movie - they give away a huge spoiler.
The Counterfeit Plan might be about phony money but it delivers genuine entertainment. Highly recommended.
Monday, July 17, 2017
Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is an embittered hardboiled newspaper reporter who covers the waterfront for The Standard. He’s tired of the job and he’s tired of the city and he’s very very tired of the waterfront. This is the middle of the Depression though and even if he hates it it is a good job and he’s good at it. He’s a good newspaperman. That’s why he hates himself so much. All self-respecting good newspapermen hate themselves, because it’s a dirty job and you can only succeed if you have no morals at all. You don’t get good stories by being a Boy Scout.
Joe has found what he thinks is a very good story. He’s convinced that local fisherman Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) is involved in a racket bringing Chinese illegal immigrants into the country. He just can’t find hard evidence. Eli is cunning and ruthless and if he’s boarded and searched by the Coast Guard he makes sure he destroys the evidence beforehand. He does this is an effective but brutal way, by throwing the illegal immigrants overboard (weighted with chains so they sink real fast).
Joe realises this could be his big opportunity. If he romances Julie he might get some information on Eli’s people-smuggling operation. It’s a mean low-down cynical thing to do but he’s a reporter and such things come naturally to him. Of course there are going to be complications. Julie is a sweet kid and he gets to be rather fond of her, especially after he sleeps with her. Their spending the night together follows a memorably clever and slightly kinky seduction scene (that’s assuming you think that chaining a girl up so you can kiss her qualifies as kinky). He could fall in love with a girl like Julie (it’s not that easy to find girls who like being chained up after all).
There’s at least one pretty exciting action scene. There’s plenty of atmosphere - the waterfront itself becomes a character in the movie. There’s hardboiled dialogue. There’s shocking, and unusual, crime. There’s romance. There’s a decent plot and the pacing is lively.
Ben Lyon is reasonably good as Joe although an actor with a bit more charisma would have helped. Colbert does her best to generate the required sexual heat and since that was something she was pretty good at (OK it was something she was very good at) she almost succeeds but somehow the chemistry between the two leads isn’t quite there. You can understand why Joe falls for Julie. This is Claudette Colbert at her most beautiful and she has those big big eyes and any man with a pulse would fall for her. It’s not so clear why Julie would fall for the morose and cynical Joe. He doesn’t even have a bad boy vibe going for him.
I found a copy of this movie in one of those Mill Creek public domain compilation boxed sets, their Diva 20-movie pack (which I don’t even remember buying). The transfer is iffy in places but generally watchable.
I Cover the Waterfront is slightly racy fast-moving entertainment and Claudette Colbert in fine form is hard to resist. It’s a lot better than most pre-code movies because it doesn’t just rely on its mildly risque elements. Highly recommended.
Monday, July 10, 2017
The Wheel Spins. The novel is somewhat clumsy in execution and is far from satisfactory but the central story idea had obvious cinematic possibilities. Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder were able to streamline the story and the result was a light-hearted comedy thriller that is one of the most engaging films of Hitchcock’s early British period.
Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a spoilt rich English girl on holiday in an obscure central European country. She feels that she has now experienced everything that life has to offer and all that is left now is marriage. She is after all in her early twenties and life has little more to offer someone of such advanced years.
Now the season is almost over and it’s time for the motley collection of English visitors to head back to England.
On the train she shares a compartment with a mysterious central European baroness, an amiable Italian family and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a slightly dotty late middle-aged English spinster. Iris would not usually tolerate such a companion but having left her friends behind at the hotel she is grateful to find someone who speaks English.
Then Miss Froy vanishes. It is as if she never existed, In fact everyone on the train seems determined to convince Iris that Miss Froy really is non-existent, a delusion brought on by that blow to the head.
If Miss Froy did exist then there is some kind of conspiracy afoot but as Gilbert points out, who on earth would want to harm such a harmless old lady? If she never did exist then perhaps Iris is not quite sane. That’s the opinion of the smooth Dr Hartz (Paul Lukacs) and he’s a brain expert so he should know.
The source novel has a melodramatic and somewhat outrageous plot but takes things fairly seriously. The screenplay makes the plot even melodramatic and even more outrageous and Hitchcock wisely elects to treat it as a light-hearted semi-comedic romantic romp. This succeeds perfectly. The film works as a fine suspense thriller, the comedy is genuinely funny and thanks to the two leads, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, the romance angle really sparkles.
Iris’s unselfish and rather courageous campaign to save Miss Froy has its effect on Gilbert as well. He had disliked Iris at first but now he suspects that there may be more to her. She might even turn out to be a young woman very much worth bothering with. Gilbert also grows up to some extent in the course of the film, and discovers that women can be rather nicer than he’d previously thought. The chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave is perfect.
There are of course plenty of Hitchcockian touches, with a bravura opening sequence typical of his British period. This film demonstrated that Hitchcock’s apprenticeship was well and truly over. The unfortunate result for the British film industry was that the film also made it inevitable that Hollywood would soon lure him away.
The sequence with the magic boxes in the baggage compartment does little to advance the plot but it adds a touch of screwball comedy and it’s glorious fun.
The Lady Vanishes is magnificent entertainment. Highly recommended.
Monday, July 3, 2017
Jack Hawkins plays Wolf Merton, a stockbroker who discovers a burglar in his home. It’s hard to say who is the more surprised of the two. Merton had been a colonel during the war, commanding a tank regiment. The burglar, Ginger Edwards (Michael Medwin) is one of the men who served under him. Actually Ginger is a bit more than that. He’s the man who saved the colonel’s life, and in fact saved the lives of an entire armoured squadron, during a particularly nasty action in North Africa.
Merton is shocked but his immediate impulse is to help the man. He might be a retired officer but he still feels a responsibility for the men who had been under his command. Unfortunately Ginger panics, throws himself through a glass door and makes a run for it.
Finding Ginger again isn’t easy. Ginger had let it slip that he still kept in touch with one of the men from the regiment and the colonel has an idea that the man in question might be Summers (George Cole). He’s almost right but then the trail seems to go cold again. Merton is sure that the man Ginger has been in touch with is one of the soldiers in a group photograph taken in North Africa.
Colonel Merton of course will also find out more about himself during the course of his search for the elusive Ginger. He is also not the only one on Ginger’s trail. The police are after Ginger as well and Merton hopes to find him before they do.
The wartime sequences are extremely well done. This is a drama but there are some comic moments as well, especially Merton’s encounter with a former corporal turned schoolmaster.
Jack Hawkins was a fine actor who played a lot of army officers, a role for which he was ideally suited. Colonel Merton is an affable sort of fellow. He cared about his men during the war and now he finds to his surprise that he still cares about them. The war was an opportunity for men to show themselves at their best, or at their worst. In Merton’s case it is definitely the former. Hawkins is able to make Merton convincingly caring without excessive sentimentality.
Hawkins gets good support from George Cole as the harassed but well-meaning Lieutenant Summers and Dennis Price as the smooth Captain Pirry, a man who has good cause not to want to remember his wartime career in too much detail. Michael Medwin is quite effective as Ginger.
This is a thoroughly typical Network DVD release, no extras but an excellent transfer at a very reasonable price.
The Intruder is a slightly offbeat film that is worth a look. Not quite a crime film, not quite a war film, but an interesting hybrid. Recommended.